The best sort of hitchhiker, I’ve found, is the guy who asks for rides at the truck stop. They’re a little smarter than the ones who get out on the road and walk for a while, first. I’ve heard some folks complain when they see someone standing around with a sign like that, saying if the guy really wanted to get there, he’d be on the road walking until he caught his ride. I see what they’re saying with that, but it’s a lot easier picking a guy up when you’re already stopped.
I was stopped at a truck stop just inside Iowa when I saw a guy holding a sign that said Council Bluffs. I was taking a load out to Omaha, so I could get him all the way without going out of my way. I went inside the truck stop and picked up a few things for the road—two-liter of soda, couple packs of crackers with peanut butter, pack of Lucky Strikes, and a Snickers bar—and went back outside to see if my guy was still there. Sure enough, there he was waiting, so I headed over to him.
“Tryin’ to get to Council Bluffs, are ya?” I took a look at the guy’s shoes. Sometimes you can figure out what sort of guy you’re working with when you check out his shoes. He had on a pair of some tennis shoes that looked like they had a real flat bottom. They were real low cut, looked almost like slippers. They were pretty clean, and his pant legs rested on the tongues and covered up the back of the shoe. I couldn’t see a brand name on the shoe anywhere, but then I took notice of those jeans. They weren’t denim, but a dark-colored canvas, or something like that. Hadn’t really seen pants like that. They were pretty clean, but looked like they had been around for a while. They were in that good phase in between the time when pants are too new and stiff and the time they start falling apart and getting holes. If I had to guess by his pants and shoes, I’d say this guy wasn’t a bum—he’s got some idea of the value of a dollar and isn’t a stranger to work—but he seemed like the kind of guy who works real hard at doing jobs that don’t break your back, something like managing a record store or a mom-and-pop restaurant. I couldn’t see him working in some chain place.
“Yeah, trying to get out and see family.” He lifted his bag and let his sign drop beside him. “Are you going that way?”
I told him I was going that way. I could get off I-80 early and go right through Council Bluffs. We walked over to the truck and I climbed in my side and unlocked his door. I’ve got some nice air-ride seats and a sleeper in the back, so it’s a pretty comfortable rig. We didn’t say anything as I got the truck fired up and made my way back onto the interstate. I turned on the radio, to a classic rock station that I thought might be agreeable. We rode along for an hour or so before I decided to pull out a joint to loosen things up a bit. It was seven o’clock or so when we left the truck stop, so it was just starting to get dark, and I didn’t want him falling asleep on me. That’s always uncomfortable. “You wanna burn one with me?” I held it up so he could get a look. He stared at the joint for a moment and looked up at my face. I caught a look on his face and knew I’d made him uncomfortable. I looked at the road ahead. “It’s alright if you don’t want to, but do you mind if I do?” I looked at him again. He sat up in his seat and breathed in deeply.
“Well, I guess I’d rather you didn’t, if that’s okay,” he said after a pause. “See, I am trying to get clean.”
“Yeah? From pot?”
“Yeah. I’m an addict. It doesn’t really matter what drug it is for addicts, but pot was my drug of choice.”
“I guess I hadn’t ever really thought somebody would get so out of hand with pot that they had to quit.” And I hadn’t. I was kinda thinking that this guy might just be melodramatic or something. “You had a pretty big problem with it?”
“Well, all I did after I graduated high school was smoke pot. That’s been about ten years ago. I went to the community college where I lived for a couple semesters.” He took out a pack of cigarettes and pulled one out. I handed him my lighter, the Zippo instead of the Bic, and he lit it before he continued talking. “I just never wanted to do anything but smoke though. That second semester, I just stayed around in Mom’s house playing video games and getting high all day. I missed a lot of classes and ended up flunking out.” He took a long drag from his cigarette.
“That sucks,” I said. I still didn’t think it meant he was a drug addict. School isn’t for everyone. “What were you studying?”
“That’s just it; I didn’t even know. I started by getting the basic classes out of the way, but I didn’t even know what I wanted to get into. I was a decent student through high school, but nothing ever really stuck out to me that I liked. So it didn’t seem like a big deal to me that I flunked out. I just figured I’d find a job and eventually move out of Mom’s place.”
“Can I get one of those cigarettes?” I couldn’t smoke my joint; I might as well smoke something. “Thanks, man. So did you get a job?”
“Yeah, I ended up getting an assistant manager job at the video store where I always went to rent games.”
“Ha! I had you pegged for a record store guy! Video store isn’t far off!”
“No, guess it isn’t,” he responded, a smile briefly interrupting the thoughtful look on his face. He finished the rest of his cigarette without talking. I was kinda interested in his story, but I figured he was lost in reflection, so I left him alone for a while. Forty-five minutes passed before he started talking again.
“Want another cigarette?” he asked, holding his pack out to me after pulling one out for himself. He looked around the cab like he was waking up from a dream, trying to remember where he was. He glanced back at the sleeper.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, taking one of the cigarettes. I told him how comfortable that sleeper could be after driving for hours on end and he nodded.
“I was actually doing pretty well for myself for a while, after I got that job at the video store, that is,” he went back into his story as if we’d been talking all along. “There was this girl working there when I started, Katie. She was really something special. Light brown hair, shoulder-length, dazzling green eyes. I was in love with her the moment I saw her—my first day on the job. Her shift ended just as mine began. I knew it would’ve been too much to hope for that we would work the same shift. And I was surprised that I’d never seen her before, since I went there to get games all the time. She always worked the same shift, though, and I never got there that early in the day. Funny how six in the evening can seem so early when you’re up playing video games until three or four every night.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, not wanting him to feel like I wasn’t interested in the conversation. I wasn’t saying much, after all. “My sleep schedule is never the same working this job. Sometimes it seems like the middle of the day to me when people are just getting up in the morning. Other times, it’s hard to imagine that people have put in a full day of work by the time I’m getting my first coffee of the day.” I watched as a sporty-looking car zipped by on my left.
“Yeah, exactly. I liked that about working at the video store—I could sleep until three or four in the afternoon and still have a few hours to kill before going to work. The best thing was always rolling in ten or fifteen minutes early to make small-talk with Katie. She was there every time I came to work for like the first two weeks. I just started to assume she’d be there every day. Then I came in and some guy was working. He was a guy who’d worked my hours before I started; I used to rent games from him. I asked him where Katie was, and he said she didn’t work Wednesday afternoons, usually. ‘She kinda digs you,’ he told me. I asked him if she’d said something, and he told me that she’d said something about a little crush she had on the new guy. I was floored. I mean, this girl was really a catch. What would she want with me?”
“Hey, give yourself some credit; you seem like a good-lookin’ kid. And you seem pretty charismatic, too.” I hoped he didn’t think I was trying to hit on him. Everybody’s heard at least one creepy story about truck drivers, but I don’t swing that way. He didn’t seem worried.
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I sure didn’t think that at the time. I was sorta awkward in high school, you know, and I didn’t do much afterwards but hang out and play video games. Even my pals who smoked pot with me and played video games were either putting more time into school or getting some kind of real jobs. I kinda felt like they were abandoning me because they were tired of my shit or something. I was pretty surprised when Katie asked me out.”
“Wow, she asked you out? Sounds like some kinda girl!” I really hated that when I was younger, the girls who played coy and waited for the guy to do the asking.
“Yeah, I’m telling you. I came in for work one day, early as usual, and just before she left, she asked me if I’d be up for going out sometime. ‘You mean like go out with some friends to a bar, or like go out to dinner and maybe a movie,’ I asked. I didn’t want to get the wrong impression. She laughed at me and said ‘dinner, silly.’ I told her I’d love to. Neither of us had to work that following Saturday, so we made it a date.”
“Cool. Did you go someplace nice?” I asked.
“Yeah, a really nice place. French-Vietnamese place called ‘Le Mekong.’ It was great. We agreed when we first sat down that we would go see a movie after dinner, but we ended up having such great conversation that we sat around drinking the Vietnamese coffee until the place almost closed. We didn’t want to leave. We drove there separately, and I walked her to her car, where we stood talking for another half hour or so. Before she got in her car, I kissed her. I’d had a few girlfriends before that, but no kiss was ever like that one. It left me speechless.”
“I know the type,” I said. I’ve had week-long affairs with women that weren’t half as exciting as a three-second kiss with the right girl.
“I knew I had it bad after that,” he went on. I took out the two-liter and offered him a drink before taking a swig myself. “We ended up dating for six months or so before getting an apartment together. I’d been itching to get out of Mom’s place for a while, and Katie’s lease was ending. We found a cozy little place not too far from the video store and got settled in. She was going to school during the day and working afternoons, and I was still working four evenings a week and like one or two afternoons. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together. It’s weird, ‘cause it was like we were spending less time together after moving in than when we lived in different places. I’d cut down on my pot smoking during those first six months, but when we moved in together, I started smoking more again. We’d talked about me getting into classes again, but I began to doubt it a few months in. Long story short, after we’d been living together for six months, she told me that she didn’t think that things were going to work out. ‘You smoke too much,’ she said, ‘and you don’t seem to want to do anything with your life.’ I tried to talk her out of going, telling her that I’d really get involved in school, and I wouldn’t have time to smoke so much once that happened, but she knew that it wasn’t true. She went and stayed with a friend for a few weeks until she found a new apartment for herself. She told me that if she couldn’t help me up, she’d have to help me down.”
That’s pretty cold, I told him. She must’ve cared a lot about him or a lot about herself. Probably herself.
“I went on working at the video store—she apparently found another job right before she broke up with me—and stayed in that apartment, smoking day-in day-out. Eventually I got behind on rent, and my landlord called and threatened to evict me. I only had two months left on the lease, so I went ahead and moved back into Mom’s. I think he must’ve figured that it wouldn’t have been worth the time to sue me, ‘cause I never heard from him again.”
“That’s a lucky thing. That looks really bad on your credit.” So he wasn’t cut out for school and couldn’t handle paying bills. I still wasn’t sure about the drug addict thing, I’ve known plenty of lazy bastards in my time. I asked him what his mom thought.
“Mom always really liked Katie,” he told me. “She either didn’t know that I smoked so much pot, or was too timid to say anything, ‘cause all she ever told me was that I should try to work things out with Katie. ‘You were doing so well for a while.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Katie couldn’t stand it that all I ever did was smoke pot. Anyway, that was all like eight years ago. Things stayed the same—me living at Mom’s and smoking all the time—until about a year ago. I had seen Katie walking down the street one day, looking just as good as I remember her, if not better. I just kept driving, but thought about her a lot for the next few days. I was in the Laundromat that weekend and saw a poster on the bulletin board. ‘Do you use drugs,’ it said. ‘If you do, that’s your business. But if you want to stop and can’t, maybe we can help.’ It had a phone number on the bottom. It had a symbol on it, but nothing that said who it was or anything. I kept thinking about it. I decided later that I would just see how long I could go without smoking on my own.”
I’d done that a few times, myself. I obviously hadn’t quit, but that was always a good way to cut down when I felt like I was smoking too much. I asked him how well it worked for him.
“Horribly. That first night, I only played video games for like half an hour before I couldn’t even pay attention to what I was doing. I just wanted to smoke. It was all I could think of. I think I actually made it forty-five minutes before breaking down.”
“That’s pretty bad,” I said. I can usually go a week or two before I break down.
“Yeah, I thought maybe I’d give it a few more tries. I did the same thing every night, holding out as long as possible. I made it an hour and a half on the second night, two on the third, and three on the fourth. When I got home from work on the fifth day, I started right back in again. Smoked from the time I got home until I went to bed. It stayed like that for the next two weeks, and I’d almost forgotten that I even tried to quit. I had to do laundry again and Mom still hadn’t gotten the machines fixed. I saw the sign again and it really freaked me out that I hardly remembered trying to quit at all. I couldn’t think of how long ago it had been. I wrote the number down before leaving and went home and got high.”
“Sounds like you did have a bit of a problem, huh?” I was figuring that he just didn’t have much will power.
“That’s for sure. I sat there playing my games all night without even thinking of the phone number. When I got ready for bed, I took all the shit outta my pockets and found the number again. I looked at it for a bit, thinking that if I didn’t call then, I probably never would. I looked at my alarm clock. It was three-thirty. The number was an eight-hundred number, though. Might as well give it a shot. You want another cigarette?”
“Sure, man.” We lit our cigarettes and didn’t do much talking as we drove through the city. We were going through Des Moines, a little more than halfway through the trip, and the city lights lit the dark cab off-and-on like a strobe light. We got through the city and finished our cigarettes. I asked him about the phone number he called.
“Well, it was one of those twelve-step programs. They had an answering service to answer questions about the program and put drug addicts in touch with other drug addicts who’d quit using. They told me when I could go to one of their meetings. I had to wait around for my next evening off, and I made a note and left it on my coffee table.”
Nothing’s better than potheads leaving notes for themselves. True comedy.
“I kept smoking on the nights until that meeting, but I ended up remembering the meeting and went to check it out. They all seemed to have their shit together, and a lot of them were saying that the only reason they were able to do anything with their lives was because they got clean and ‘worked a program.’ After the meeting, I went up to one of the guys who seemed to know what was going on. I asked him how I was supposed to ‘work the program.’ He told me that I should get a sponsor. I asked him if that meant that I should have companies pay me to stay clean. I knew that wasn’t what he meant, I was just trying to be funny. He laughed and said he could sponsor me for a while, if I wanted. I said sure and asked him what that meant. He said we should get together sometime to talk about recovery. I told him that I usually only had two days off each week, and he told me I should meet him at the noon meeting the next day, that we could go out for coffee afterwards. Noon seemed awfully early to be doing anything, but I knew I wasn’t going to kick this habit myself. I said I’d do it. I went home and went straight to bed.”
“No smoking. I met him the next day, and kept going to that noon meeting every day. He told me I should go to ninety meetings in ninety days. It sounded bad at first, but I realized quickly that I would have to be doing something to keep my mind off smoking pot.”
“Wow. So how long you been clean?”
“About three days.”
“But that was like a year ago, right?”
“Yeah. I did good for like six months. That’s when Mom died. It was so out of the blue. And she was all the family I had. Some of the people from the meetings were kinda cool, and my sponsor was always willing to bend over backwards to help me out, but I didn’t tell him that she died. I didn’t want sympathy or anything like that. I went to her funeral by myself and went and got a bag when it was over. My old dealer was happy to see me again!”
I bet he was, too. This kid was gonna be back to smoking an eighth every night and playing video games until all hours of the morning. I don’t know how these kids do it. I played some space invaders years ago, and I couldn’t stand the shit.
“And that’s what I’ve been doing the last six months. My sponsor left me a handful of messages that first week, but he must’ve gotten the hint after that.”
“So you do smoke or you don’t?” I was curious; he’d declined my joint. Why wouldn’t he want to smoke it if he wasn’t in the program anymore? I opened my pack of crackers and held them out to him.
“No, thanks. Here’s the thing: I changed jobs when I got clean that first time, and I was having a lot of problems being a librarian after I started smoking again. For the last week or two, I’ve really been considering trying to quit again or going to see if the video store has any open positions. I figured going back to the video store would be easier. I was going to tell my boss at the library the other day, but then I got a letter. It was addressed to my mom. It was a regular old first-class mail, not an ad or anything, so I went ahead and opened it up. It was from some girl who said that she’d been given up for adoption years ago. I’d heard Mom and Grandma talking about something like that twelve or thirteen years ago. The dates matched up for when Mom lived in Indiana, sometime after she got out of high school, she’d told me about it when we were driving out to Cleveland a long time ago. She asked if I knew that she’d lived in Gary, and when I told her I didn’t, she just said, ‘Well, I did, a long time ago.’ She seemed really sad and quiet for the next few hours. The evidence really seems to add up, so I think I have some family left, after all.” His voice cracked on those last few words.
“Can I get another one of those cigarettes,” I asked. We smoked in silence. Council Bluffs was only another forty-five minutes or so. “So she’s in Council Bluffs?”
“Yep. Letter said she’d been living there all her life. She’s married and has two sons. After I read the letter the other day, I called my sponsor up. We got together and I told him about how Mom had died and that I’d been back to the pipe. He said that he figured I was back on the pipe, but had no idea that my mother had died. I told him about how I felt, having no family. I just couldn’t deal with both having no family and being such a worthless person. He said that after being in the program for ten years, he considered the people in the program more his family than his regular family. ‘There’s a part of me that my family just won’t ever get. It’s something that only people in the program will ever understand. It’s this disease.’ I know what he means. That’s why I decided to give this getting clean thing another chance. I have blood family, again, and if I get back into the program, I’ll make a new family for myself there.”
“So what do you mean by disease?” I had kinda heard this terminology before, but I’d never wanted to look like a dumb-ass asking about it. Who better to ask than somebody who has it? I put my turn signal on and got into the left lane, passing some little Honda that seemed to be having a hard time keeping up.
“Well, I guess what I mean by disease is that I can’t control my use of any mind- or mood-altering substance. Sure, pot was my particular flavor, but I know that when I was in high school, partying with the guys and that sort of thing, I always just did as much as I could of whatever we had. When I was clean before, I started to realize that my disease wasn’t just about using drugs. They say ignorance is bliss, right? Well, that was what I wanted. I wanted bliss. I couldn’t just un-think and un-feel all of the thoughts and feelings I had, so ignorance wasn’t really an option anymore. The first time I got high, I became oblivious to shit. Being oblivious is the next best thing to being ignorant. When I was high, I didn’t have to think about the fact that my dad deserted us when I was five. I didn’t have to think about how terrified I was of women. I didn’t have to think about how Katie had proved that I would never have a successful relationship. I didn’t have to think about Mom being dead and me being all alone. I just sat for hours in front of the TV screen, playing RPGs and ripping bongs.”
What’s the difference? I had to wonder, clean or using drugs, you still got all of the same problems. Using drugs might not make those problems go away, but getting clean doesn’t, either.
“The biggest thing that changes is my attitude. They say that the core of the disease is self-centeredness. I was always so worried about myself that I couldn’t handle my thoughts and feelings. Everything was always about what was going my way and what wasn’t going my way. In recovery, my goal is to just see how things are going, and go with them. That way I don’t get so worried about me and how I’m going to get what I want or need.”
“I guess that makes good sense,” I said. “But if you know that, then why not go ahead and smoke? Your attitude was your problem, right? Couldn’t you just keep on smoking weed and try to keep a better attitude—you know, smoke weed every now and then, but try to make a life for yourself in the meantime?”
“That’s just the thing. I don’t know if I’ve always had this disease, or if it was something that came on over a period of time, but I can’t make it go away. I know that any time that I use, weed or anything else, I can’t predict how I’m going to act. Maybe it’d go well for a while; I could smoke two or three times a week and be responsible and productive the rest of the time. But eventually I’d get tired of dealing with real life and just want to go back to smoking non-stop. I already know that drugs will give me that oblivion…” He trailed off for a moment. “Oblivion. That’s what it is. I want to be oblivious to things, and I end up numbing myself to oblivion.” He looked over at me and smiled. “I want to have a life. And I know I can’t handle it if I smoke.”
“I’m glad for you, man. I hope you can keep on with it.”
“Long as I stick with the meetings, I think I got a shot.”
We rode along quietly for a while longer. Only about fifteen minutes to Council Bluffs. I got this habit of speeding up when I get closer to the destination, so I picked it up a little bit and got in the left lane to pass a couple of the trucks I was rolling with.
“So your sister knows you’re coming?”
“No. This trip was really an impulsive thing. After I talked to my sponsor, I decided to do this. Just seems like it will make a nice way to get my new beginning rolling. I didn’t want to tell her over the phone that her mom, our mom, is dead. I’ve never even met her. I could’ve planned this out a little more, taken the time to make sure I had a ride and all of that, but I just want to get things moving.”
“What are you going to do when you get to town?”
“I figure I’ll get a room in a motel and stay the night. Tomorrow I’ll give her a call and see if she’d like to get together. I have enough money for a cheap room, a decent meal for two, and a bus ride home. After that, I’ll go home and get back into this recovery thing.”
I told him it sounded like a good plan. I liked this kid. I hoped he could take care of himself.
It was eleven-thirty or so when I took the exit to 24th Street. I knew a hotel in Council Bluffs with a restaurant built-in. I told him I’d drop him off there so he could get himself a good breakfast before taking off. We didn’t say anything else as I made my way to the hotel.
“Hey, I appreciate the ride, man. And thanks for listening. I feel like I talked your ear off.”
“No worries, pal. Anything to break the monotony of being on the road alone all the time. Tell you what, man. Take this money,” I said, pulling a fifty-dollar bill out of my pocket. “Make sure you take your sister someplace nice, and maybe try to get out and buy her something nice.” He looked at me and down at the bill I held out to him and started to shake his head. “Take it, I’m serious,” I told him. He looked ahead. I forced it into his hand.
“Are you sure, man?” he asked.
“You got it,” I said. “Now go on, get yourself some sleep.” He thanked me and I told him to get going. He walked up to the motel, turning to wave good-bye as he opened the door to the office. I gave the air-horn a little pull and got back on the road. I shook my head and made a little wish for him that things would go well with his sister. Then I pulled out my joint.
Oblivion. I like it.